Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Flying Clubs - Ceiling Unlimited

One thing you do not always learn during the course of initial flight training is the social potential of general aviation. Personally speaking, I did not initially think about interaction with other pilots right away as I was focused on learning and experiencing the whole new world available to me. However, after a couple of years with my ticket, I noticed that I was sticking around the airport more and more trying to catch my CFI, even for just a few moments simply to talk about our most recent flying experiences, some new type of airplane that recently entered the market, or just other happenings around the airport. Given my CFI's obligations of running a business as well as an environment that was not particularly conducive to connecting with the other pilots around the outfit, it was difficult to get my fill of flying-related interaction. So, I hit the internet to see what else was out there and ended up joining Leading Edge Flying Club (LEFC) at KPWK, and over the course of the past two and a half years, the quality of my experience continues to climb at an incredible rate.

LEFC members with the club's Sky Arrow after a quick Saturday morning breakfast trip to KJVL

I feel that all great ideas are built upon the foundation of a simple concept. LEFC was the result of a small group of pilots who came together to fly great planes and have a great time doing it with great people. Easy enough, right? Several years later and that group of individuals has grown to a much larger (I believe over 80 at this point) collection of friends and flying buddies. My introduction to the club was via an e-mail I sent inquiring for more information - the response I received the next day was a phone call from one of the members as he was getting out of a club plane after a quick flight. Talk about practicing what you preach!

So, what has made this experience so meaningful to me? I can easily point to a few critical elements: leadership, commitment, opportunity, and members from a wide range of backgrounds.

From a leadership standpoint, most of the individuals responsible for the core drive of the organization evolved from the initial cluster of pilots who banded together at inception. Obviously, to get something going, those individuals have a special amount of motivation and dedication to aviation. They commit so much of their own free time to enable all of us to reap as much as we can from the group. There are so many elements to running a club apart from the already enormous task of ensuring a healthy fleet of aircraft. The administrative burden alone is quite substantial; financially, there is money coming in, money going out, and someone needs to ensure that at the end of the day the debits equal the credits. In addition to the administrative side, the leaders are tasked with growing the membership pool and keeping the existing members engaged. I think it would be very easy after a period of time to be fixated on the original core ideals of the club and resist drivers of change. In my experience with LEFC, this couldn't be further from the truth. As far as I can tell, new ideas are embraced, whether through open invitation from the membership or expansion and alterations to the composition of the board that oversees it all. This is essential in a collection of individuals greater than just a few; while we all come together via a common love for flying, not everyone has the same objectives or comes from the same background.

Commitment is sort of a sub-component of strong leadership, but it also involves the greater membership as well. One element of commitment at our club comes in the form of regularly scheduled breakfasts. Excluding a few exceptions throughout the year, we meet for breakfast on the first Saturday of every month at a restaurant just down the street from our airport. Committing ourselves to a regularly scheduled event eliminates the difficulty of trying to pull together a large group of individuals at a mutually agreeable time. Sure, there are months here and there where only twenty members show up and there are several empty seats, but there are many more months where there is no elbow room as every available space is occupied. There is also a commitment by leadership to ensure the success of each meeting, generally done through a good deal of planning. This means scheduling interesting guest speakers (recently Dr. Bruce Chien flew up from Peoria, IL to speak with us - I just read an article he was featured in within this month's AOPA magazine) or setting off group discussions with interesting topics. One forum we occasionally hold is called "True Confessions," which is where all of us drop our pilot egos for a bit and admit to mistakes made so that the greater population can leverage each pilot's experience as a learning opportunity.

Another key element of flying club success in my mind is opportunity. This comes in many forms, one of which was implied above, and that is the opportunity to regularly get together. In addition to recurring breakfast meetings, the club offers members a space to congregate in the hangar where our airplanes are housed. This isn't just a space to drop off and store belongings while flying. No, this is a space in which many members have invested countless hours to outfit and continually keep in tip-top shape – note, a refurbishment is ongoing as I type. There are plenty of areas to sit and socialize (even a few seats from a former Midwest Airlines 717), computers for weather briefings/flight simulation, and most importantly, in my opinion, a stocked fridge and large snack table. This type of atmosphere leads to further social interaction and frequently the opportunity to fill an otherwise vacant seat in an aircraft (NOTE: I can't say it enough, empty seats are wasted seats!!!). On numerous occasions I've run into others who just stopped by to see what was going on without any intention of flying. If the weather changes, as it frequently does for us Midwesterners, you don't need to go anywhere to get a heavy dose of hangar flying.

Having people in the club from all walks of life is one more component which I have found particularly beneficial. We have individuals from all sorts of professions/backgrounds - a motley crew that would likely have little chance of coming together save for the common bond of aviation. I think this adds so much to our interactions as each story told completely differs from what the next pilot will tell. A conversation may evolve from discussion about how much fuel a 777 burns taxiing to the particulars of flying a hot air balloon to the highlights of flying to Oshkosh for the first time. This really adds to the uniqueness of the experience and in my mind is a critical element for people staying committed and finding the time to get out to the airport on a regular basis.

Overall, general aviation has been at a crossroads for a number of years, and it is time for its stakeholders to take charge and lay out a course to properly shape its future. We are not attracting enough new blood to this incredible hobby, while at the same time we are not retaining enough people in the active pilot population. There are numerous factors that have gotten us to this point, and I do think that we can get things pointed in the proper direction if we can get more flying clubs to adhere to the basic fundamentals I laid out above.

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